Chat to Steve Mason about his fifth solo album – the stirring and stunning Brothers & Sisters– and all manner of musical touchpoints crop up. From Wu-Tang Clan and LTJ Bukem to Adam & The Ants and Public Image Limited by way of Mahalia Jackson and The Cramps, Mason not only knows his musical onions, but remains resolutely a fan. However, when it came to looking for guidance and inspiration for the best album of his career – no mean feat when you consider his back catalogue – his cultural lodestar was expertly chosen.
“David Bowie said that artists should push themselves to a point where they felt slightly out of their depth,” he explains. “Because that’s where the magic happens. And there were a lot of times during the making of this record that I felt like that. And I quite enjoyed that. Because I haven’t felt like that for quite a long time. It’s felt quite safe over the last few albums. It’s that thing… the fear of failure, it’s then when you realise the failure could be spectacular. It’s what drives you to make this thing work. To keep pushing forward.”
In the wake of his fourth album, About The Light, Mason, one of British music’s true 21st Century renegades, with a back catalogue that has taken in electro, dub, indie rock, electronica, hip hop, folk and everything in-between, felt creatively bereft. Allied to this was the weight of adult responsibility that was starting to bear down heavily on him. In the space of a year he’d got married, had a child and bought a house. The spectre of making a safe, radio-friendly record – a sensation he felt he had already encroached upon with About The Light – didn’t sit easily.
So in order to become an artist again, the erstwhile Beta Band frontman knew he had to demolish what he had become. Or was in danger of becoming. He had to become a child again. Which, funnily enough, was what being in The Beta Band – that wondrously electrifying, infuriatingly magical Anglo-Scottish four-piece – resembled.
In 2020 then, at a time when the world seemed to be falling apart, Mason went on his own destructive crusade. To completely cleanse himself of any radio-friendly, formulaic mediocrity and rediscover his artistic calling wasn’t an easy process. Experimenting with various approaches enabled him to shed some layers, but it wasn’t until he realised that everything he’s most proud of starts with a song that things really began to positively unravel – as it were.
The finished album is arguably the most open, honest and vibrant record of Mason’s career. Like many of his previous records it marries the personal and the political but does so in an emotive and uplifting manner. Written against a backdrop of fear and uncertainty, and at a time when those in charge lurched from one disaster to the next mismanagement with increasing regularity, Brothers & Sisters is in fact an incredibly joyous, even spiritual, listen.
For Mason, writing and recording the album was a fun, experimental affair with producer Tev'n and musician Susumu ‘Zongamin’ Mukai encouraging this fertile creative process. A spiritual and pleasingly rhythmical record, with musical contributions from feted Pakistani singer Javed Bashir, British gospel singers Jayando Cole, Keshia Smith, Connie McCall & Adrian Blake and Kaviraj Singh on the santoor it’s a real collision of cultures.
“To me, this record is a massive ‘Fuck you’ to Brexit,” he says, barely bothering to disguise his disgust at the events of 2016 and beyond. “And a giant ‘Fuck you’ to anyone that is terrified of immigration because there is nothing that immigration has brought to this country that isn’t to be applauded. Can you imagine what this place would be like without that [immigration]? I mean what would it be like? Cornish pasties and morris dancing?.”
“Our generation,” he sighs. “I guess we… I naively thought that we’d dealt with racism. I naively thought we’d dealt with homophobia. I thought we’d sorted all that out – with the help of a little bit of E. But it turns out we were wrong.”
Brothers & Sisters then is a record about bringing people together through art, music and culture. A lofty aim, no doubt, but one that Mason has achieved – through a lot of perspiration and a little demolition – on the best album of his 25-year career in sonic wanderlust.
“That’s always been the aim,” he concludes. “To change the world through music. I still don’t know what that means. But I’ll never stop trying. Because that’s why I’m here.”
Or, in other words, finding strength, compassion and beauty through creativity. It might have taken a picaresque journey to get there, but there’s no doubt Steve Mason has reached the apex of his creativity on Brothers & Sisters.